Entertainment on Austin taxpayers' dime


by ANDY PIERROTTI / KVUE News and Photojournalist ERIN COKER

Bio | Email | Follow: @AndyP_KVUE


Posted on November 8, 2012 at 10:31 PM

Updated Friday, Nov 9 at 9:20 AM

A KVUE Defenders investigation uncovered the City of Austin spending more than a million dollars on food and gifts in the past two and half years. Plus, some city employees have special permission to drink alcohol on the job.

All of the purchases the Defenders found were paid for with a City purchasing card, similar to a credit card.

The majority of the purchases were spent to recognize City employees with awards, appreciation dinners, anniversaries and retirements gifts.

A sample of purchases include a $75 flower arrangement, $21 steak dinners at Texas Land and Cattle and hundreds of movie tickets.

While it sounds like the perfect date night, Laura Pressley, a long-time critic of city spending, thinks the purchases are out of line. “The City thinks we're rich,” she argued.

Transactions also include nearly $6,000 in lunches and dinners at the Oasis Restaurant that overlooks Lake Travis, $27,000 in movie nights at the Alamo Draft House and $59,000 in gift cards to HEB.

City human resources director Mark Washington says it’s all within city policy.

"I think a' thank you' is a big part of showing appreciation, but there are additional things that you can do besides just telling employees that you appreciate them," contended Washington.

Washington says department heads are allowed to budget money to recognize staff. Policy allows up to $65 per employee, per year.

The Defenders' totals also include meals for employees who take part in training and conferences, but the majority still involves money reserved to recognize employees.

"It's less than one percent and on average, $65 per year, per employee, is about three cents per hour, per employee," said Washington.

“'Thank-you's' are free. Those are the most important things people want to hear and that they want to feel,” countered Pressley, who ran unsuccessfully for city council earlier this year.

She’s a business owner and used to work for the semi-conductor industry.

"I know what corporate American does with these types of expenses. They are out-spending corporate America," said Pressley.

Another purchase the Defenders uncovered on multiple receipts includes alcohol. The City's credit card policy strictly prohibits it, but convention center employees get special permission.

Some convention center receipts include multiple $9 glasses of wine purchased at a Los Angeles restaurant and several $100 bar tabs in Austin. One included five Jack Daniels cocktails on it.

Convention Center Director Mark Tester says employees can drink on the job when entertaining potential clients, but they do it responsibly.

"We're in the hospitality industry. We very much mirror what happens in the industry; welcome receptions, entertaining and being at events with alcohol are common place," Tester explained.

The convention center generates millions of dollars in revenue for the City, and is mostly funded with taxes charged on hotel rooms.

Tester says wining and dining clients is just the industry standard when it comes to convincing big events to pick Austin.
"To say that we can do all that for you, yet take you out to dinner and not give you a glass of wine or give you a beverage, it doesn't seem right," contended Tester.

Pressley says the million dollars the Defenders uncovered could have been used to help reduce the two city's budget that raised taxes and fees three percent, helped purchase a new fire truck, or to could have kept city pools open last summer when many closed to save money.

"That is just out of the norm for anybody in this town, in the corporations. They stopped this stuff 10 years ago," argued Pressley.

Washington says the City did consider reducing or eliminating expenses to recognize employees a few years ago during budget cuts, but chose to keep it.

Austin is not the only city that allocates money for recognition dinners, drinks and gifts. San Antonio and Fort Worth do as well. Both cities allow their departments to budget a certain amount of money for similar purchases.
The Defenders emailed and called each council member and the mayor's office for more than a week to get their opinion on the purchases, but none of them responded to the interview requests.